On this day in 1940, the influential comedian and actor Richard Pryor, who rose to fame in Hollywood in the 1970s and appeared in such hit films as Silver Streak, is born in Peoria, Illinois. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Pryor was “the first African-American stand-up comedian to speak candidly and successfully to integrated audiences using the language and jokes blacks previously only shared among themselves when they were most critical of America… His comic style emancipated African-American humor.”
After being expelled from school in the eighth grade, Pryor worked a series of jobs and served in the U.S. Army before he was discharged for getting into a fight. He began performing in comedy clubs and by 1963 was doing stand-up in New York City, modeling his routines after the clean-cut, non-offensive style of such fellow African-American comedians as Bill Cosby. The following year, Pryor made his national TV debut on a variety show hosted by Rudy Vallee. In 1967, he released his first comedy album, Richard Pryor. The funnyman made his big-screen debut that same year with the comedy The Busy Body, featuring Sid Caesar.
During the 1970s, Pryor’s comedy evolved, and he tackled racially sensitive topics in his stand-up routines and bestselling, Grammy Award-winning comedy albums, often using raunchy, politically incorrect language. According to his 2005 obituary in the New York Times: “At the height of his career, in the late 1970’s, Mr. Pryor prowled the stage like a restless cat, dispensing what critics regarded as the most poignant and penetrating comedic view of African-American life ever afforded the American public. He was volatile yet vulnerable, crass but sensitive, streetwise and cocky but somehow still diffident and anxious. And he could unleash an astonishing array of dramatic and comic skills to win acceptance and approval for a kind of stark humor.”
Pryor’s movie career took off with the 1976 box-office hit Silver Streak, a comedy-thriller about a murder on a train, co-starring Gene Wilder. Pryor and Wilder went on to collaborate on such films as Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991). During the 1970s, Pryor also appeared in such movies as 1977’s Greased Lightning, in which he plays a race car driver; The Wiz (1978), a version of The Wizard of Oz that featured an entirely African-American cast, with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson joining Pryor (who played the title role); writer Neil Simon’s California Suite (1978), with Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, Walter Matthau, Maggie Smith and Bill Cosby; and The Muppet Movie (1979). In 1979, Pryor also released his first concert film, Richard Pryor, Live in Concert, which according to a 2005 Times article “remains the standard by which other movies of live comedy performances are judged.”
In 1980, Pryor, who battled substance-abuse issues during his life, was severely burned in an explosion caused while he was freebasing cocaine. After spending several months recovering in the hospital, he resumed his career, performing stand-up and appearing in a string of movies, including Bustin’ Loose (1980), in which he plays an ex-con who gets a second chance; Superman III (1983), with Christopher Reeve; Brewster’s Millions (1985), with John Candy; the semi-autobiographical Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986); and Harlem Nights (1989), written, directed by and co-starring Eddie Murphy.
In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He made his final film appearance in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997). Pryor, who was married six times, died at the age of 65 on December 10, 2005, in California after suffering a heart attack.